What is a Data Leak? Everything You Need to Know (2023)

By Tibor Moes / Updated: June 2023

What is a Data Leak? Everything You Need to Know (2023)<br />

What is a Data Leak?

Imagine waking up one day to find your personal information splashed across the internet or your company’s trade secrets leaked to competitors. Data leaks can have severe consequences for both individuals and businesses, leading to financial loss, reputational damage, and legal troubles. That’s why understanding, preventing, and mitigating data leaks is of utmost importance. Are you prepared to face this challenge?


  • A data leak is an incident where confidential information is exposed to unauthorized individuals, either digitally or physically. This can be unintentional or malicious.

  • Leaks can lead to severe damage, including financial loss, identity theft, and harm to an organization’s reputation.

  • Implementing strong access controls, encryption, and regular security audits can help prevent data leaks.

Don’t become a victim of cybercrime. Protect your devices with the best antivirus software and your privacy with the best VPN service.

Understanding Data Leaks: Definition and Differences from Data Breaches

A data leak occurs when an organization’s sensitive files and confidential data are unintentionally exposed. Think of it as a dripping faucet, slowly releasing sensitive information like social security numbers, credit card numbers, and financial info into the hands of unauthorized individuals.

But how do data leaks differ from data breaches? While data leaks are unintentional disclosures of sensitive data due to internal causes, data breaches are caused by external sources such as cyberattacks. In other words, data leaks happen by accident, while data breaches are the result of malicious intent.

Regardless of the cause, both data leaks and data breaches can have severe consequences for organizations, including financial, reputational, and legal issues.

Common Causes of Data Leaks

Operational gaps, process errors, and a lack of cybersecurity awareness can lead to data leaks. Employee mistakes, weak security measures, and third-party risks are among the main reasons behind data leaks. From using the same password for multiple accounts to unpatched or misconfigured infrastructure, these factors can make organizations vulnerable to data leaks.

Let’s examine these causes in more detail.

Employee Mistakes and Insider Threats

Employee mistakes are unintentional actions that can lead to data leaks, such as sending sensitive information to the wrong person or forgetting to shred records before throwing them out. On the other hand, insider threats are malicious actions taken by employees intended to cause harm to the organization. These threats could be motivated by personal gain or a desire for revenge.

Social engineering scams, such as phishing, are another common cause of data leaks. Cybercriminals use deceptive emails and social media to manipulate employees into providing sensitive information or access to the organization’s network or systems.

By educating employees about these scams and providing them with the tools to identify and report such threats, organizations can significantly reduce the risk of data leaks caused by employee mistakes and insider threats.

Weak Security Measures and Legacy Systems

Outdated technology and inadequate security measures make data leaks more likely. Old-school tools like external USB drives, desktop email programs, and public printers can lead to data leaks if not handled correctly. For example, an employee could lose a USB drive with sensitive data in a public place, making the data accessible to anyone who finds it.

Cloud services, while convenient and increasingly popular, also come with certain risks that could lead to security breaches and data leaks. Unauthorized access to data in the cloud, information leakage, and data corruption are some of the risks associated with shadow IT – the use of third-party applications and solutions not officially approved by the organization. Managing permissions properly and keeping software updated are essential steps in preventing data leaks caused by weak security measures and legacy systems.

Bad infrastructure, such as misconfigured systems or unpatched software, can also contribute to data leaks. IT teams may not be aware of a data leak until it’s too late, making it crucial to implement comprehensive monitoring and regularly update systems to identify potential vulnerabilities and protect sensitive data.

Third-Party Risks

Third-party risks can sometimes lead to data leaks, but with proper management, the chances of data leaks can be reduced. If third-party vendors processing a business’s data don’t have adequate security measures in place, the business’s data could still be at risk of exposure. This highlights the importance of third-party risk management in protecting sensitive data.

Organizations should carefully assess the security measures of their third-party vendors and establish clear guidelines and expectations for data handling. By actively monitoring third-party risk and requiring vendors to follow robust security measures, organizations can minimize the likelihood of data leaks caused by third-party risks.

Types of Data at Risk in a Data Leak

Various types of sensitive data may be exposed during a data leak, such as personally identifiable information (PII), financial records, and trade secrets. PII stands for Personally Identifiable Information. It includes details such as social security numbers, credit card numbers and other private information that can be used for identity theft. Data leaks can also reveal sensitive information about a company’s operations, business strategies, and intellectual property.

Malicious actors can use leaked data for various purposes, from committing identity theft to selling the information on the dark web. Real-world data leaks have exposed customer data, trade secrets, and other sensitive information, leading to significant financial loss, reputational damage, and legal troubles for the affected organizations.

Understanding the types of data at risk in a data leak is crucial for organizations to prioritize their data protection efforts and minimize potential harm.

Consequences of Data Leaks for Organizations

Data leaks can lead to a multitude of problems for organizations, from reputational damage and loss of intellectual property to potential legal ramifications. Phishing, spam, identity theft, and other scams are just a few of the threats that can result from a data leak. Furthermore, if a bad actor gains access to important accounts using stolen credentials, they can cause even more harm to the organization.

To address these challenges and protect their sensitive data, organizations must invest in preventative measures and adopt a proactive approach to data security. By identifying potential weaknesses and implementing robust security protocols, organizations can significantly reduce the likelihood of data leaks and their associated consequences.

Notable Data Leak Incidents

Real-world data leaks have occurred at large organizations and government entities, demonstrating the severe risks and consequences of such incidents. For example, insider attacks, where current or former employees sabotage the organization, have led to data leaks, causing significant damage to the affected organizations.

These incidents serve as a stark reminder of the importance of effective data leak prevention strategies. By learning from these incidents and implementing strong security measures, employee training, and regular system monitoring, organizations can minimize the risk of data leaks and protect their sensitive information.

Steps to Prevent Data Leaks

To minimize the risk of data leaks, organizations should focus on enhancing employee awareness and training, implementing strong security protocols, and regularly monitoring and updating their systems.

By proactively addressing these key areas, organizations can create a strong defense against data leaks and ensure the security of their sensitive information.

Enhancing Employee Awareness and Training

Cybersecurity training is essential for teaching employees about external threats that could lead to data leaks, as well as good data privacy practices and protective data storage hygiene. Identifying potential weaknesses and teaching staff members the best ways to handle sensitive information can reduce the risk of human error and insider threats.

Effective employee training programs may include phishing simulations, password management workshops, and sessions on identifying and reporting potential security threats. By investing in employee education and fostering a culture of cybersecurity awareness, organizations can significantly reduce the likelihood of data leaks caused by human error or malicious insiders.

Implementing Strong Security Protocols

Adopting strong security protocols, such as multi-factor authentication and encryption, is crucial for protecting sensitive data and preventing data leaks. These security measures not only safeguard data from unauthorized access, but also ensure its integrity and confidentiality.

Organizations should also implement a least-privilege policy, granting access to critical data only to those employees who genuinely need it. By limiting admin privileges, permissions, and access to sensitive data, organizations can create a more secure environment and significantly reduce the risk of data leaks.

Regularly Monitoring and Updating Systems

Ongoing system updates and monitoring are essential for identifying vulnerabilities and preventing data leaks. Regularly checking and maintaining computer systems, including network devices, server memory, routers, switches, and applications, helps ensure smooth operation and up-to-date security patches.

Automation can be an invaluable tool in maintaining system security as organizations grow. Automated monitoring and updating processes can identify potential vulnerabilities, patch software, and ensure consistent security measures across the organization.

Furthermore, having an emergency backup plan in case of a data leak is vital for efficient and successful data recovery, addressing any weaknesses, and attending to affected individuals.

How Professional Services Can Help Prevent Data Leaks

Engaging with professional cybersecurity services can assist organizations in designing and implementing effective data leak prevention strategies. These services can help identify potential vulnerabilities, establish robust security measures, and ensure compliance with data protection regulations.

Fortinet offers cloud-native protection services through their service, FortiCNP. These services include risk and threat management, data protection, and data security compliance. By partnering with professional services like FortiCNP, organizations can bolster their data leak prevention efforts and protect their sensitive information from potential threats.


Data leaks can have severe consequences for both individuals and organizations. By understanding the causes and types of data leaks, organizations can implement effective prevention strategies. Enhancing employee awareness and training, adopting strong security protocols, regularly monitoring and updating systems, and engaging with professional cybersecurity services are all crucial steps in minimizing the risk of data leaks. Don’t wait until it’s too late – invest in your organization’s data security today and protect your sensitive information from potential threats.

How to stay safe online:

  • Practice Strong Password Hygiene: Use a unique and complex password for each account. A password manager can help generate and store them. In addition, enable two-factor authentication (2FA) whenever available.
  • Invest in Your Safety: Buying the best antivirus for Windows 11 is key for your online security. A high-quality antivirus like Norton, McAfee, or Bitdefender will safeguard your PC from various online threats, including malware, ransomware, and spyware.
  • Be Wary of Phishing Attempts: Be cautious when receiving suspicious communications that ask for personal information. Legitimate businesses will never ask for sensitive details via email or text. Before clicking on any links, ensure the sender's authenticity.
  • Stay Informed. We cover a wide range of cybersecurity topics on our blog. And there are several credible sources offering threat reports and recommendations, such as NIST, CISA, FBI, ENISA, Symantec, Verizon, Cisco, Crowdstrike, and many more.

Happy surfing!

Frequently Asked Questions

Below are the most frequently asked questions.

What does it mean if you have a data leak?

Data leaks occur when information is made available to unauthorized individuals or organizations, due to human error or malicious intent. Data leaks can cause identity theft, cyberattacks, and data breaches, making it essential that organizations take appropriate measures to protect their data.

How serious is a data leak?

A data leak can have serious consequences, as the unauthorized release of sensitive information could lead to identity theft, data breaches, or even ransomware installation. Poor data security and sanitization, outdated systems, and a lack of employee training can all contribute to a data leak.

Does data leak mean hacked?

No, data leak does not mean hacked. A data leak can occur from an internal source exposing the information, while a hack typically refers to an outside source accessing the information without permission.

Author: Tibor Moes

Author: Tibor Moes

Founder & Chief Editor at SoftwareLab

Tibor is a Dutch engineer and entrepreneur. He has tested security software since 2014.

Over the years, he has tested most of the best antivirus software for Windows, Mac, Android, and iOS, as well as many VPN providers.

He uses Norton to protect his devices, CyberGhost for his privacy, and Dashlane for his passwords.

This website is hosted on a Digital Ocean server via Cloudways and is built with DIVI on WordPress.

You can find him on LinkedIn or contact him here.

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